Ever-evolving, Costa Rica’s capital is an exciting place to hit the ground running—or, instead, walking. You can access many historical, cultural, and culinary highlights of San José via walking tours here. See, taste, sip and shop your way around town with these suggestions of 12 things to do in San José.
Shop for Handcrafted Souvenirs and Fresh Food at the Farmers Market
On Saturday mornings, the Feria Verde farmers market is the place to be. In addition to the organic produce and tropical fruits you expect to see at a farmers market, you’ll also find organic coffee, personal care products, apparel, and handcrafted jewelry—all made in Costa Rica. Sip kombucha or organic coffee (the yellow, eco-friendly ceramic cups will lead you to Taza Amarilla if your nose doesn’t discover the aroma of their organic coffee first), shop for one-of-a-kind souvenirs such as a handprinted, eco-friendly tank from Gaia Prints, and sit down to brunch under the tropical tree canopy.
Take a Free Walking Tour
No need to go it alone or spend a single colón (though you should bring some cash for tips and any souvenirs you spot along the way) to discover the best of San José. Carpe Chepe offers a free walking tour, departing from the National Theatre Monday through Saturday. The Tico (local Costa Rican) guides impart essential historical and cultural context sprinkled with humor while you walk around and see some of the sites.
Try "Forest Bathing"
Leave the buzz of the city behind and immerse yourself in the sounds and scents of the Costa Rican forest. Sentir Natural offers guided forest bathing experiences at the nature reserve on the University of Peace campus on the outskirts of San José and other locations, including urban parks, on request. This activity is less about physical exercise and more about internal reflection and connection with the natural environment. A guide will lead you through a series of “invitations”—activities intended to help you “bathe” in the beauty and healing of the forest.
Take an Art Tour
Once per month, San José plays host to Art City Tour. GAM Cultural creates recommended routes, a hop-on-hop-off bus is provided, and entrance into participating venues, including museums, is free. Each month offers something new and inspiring, such as live and wearable art seen in a Tienda Eñe fashion show that used the street like a catwalk.
Wander the Mercado Central
You could spend an entire afternoon walking through San José’s Mercado Central (Central Market). There are many sodas (informal, local restaurants) and shops inside, so bring an empty shopping bag and an empty stomach. Pick up some souvenirs, herbal remedies at Hierbas La Favorita, or fresh flowers. Sample fresh queso at the Tramo Santa Cruz stall. And enjoy ceviche alongside locals at Marisqueria La Ribera. Save room for a scoop of sorbet at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora.
Eat Indigenous Food
You don’t have to travel to the rainforest to taste the ancient flavors of Costa Rica’s indigenous cuisine. Sikwa is bringing indigenous recipes to San José with creative, eye-catching, and delicious dishes that utilize traditional staples such as corn, plantains, and ojoche (a tuber), some sent straight to the chef from indigenous communities. The Cocina Ancestral tasting menu is an ideal intro, and the use of locally available ingredients means that the menu changes with the seasons.
Picnic in the Park
Pack a picnic and head for Parque La Sabana, Costa Rica’s largest urban green space covering nearly 180 acres. This is such a popular place amongst Ticas; it’s estimated that around 38,000 people visit the park each week. Park yourself on a bench or blanket under the trees, and people watch. When you’re ready to get moving, join a pick-up game on one of the 12 soccer fields or take a lap around the footpath with a stop at Museo de Arte Costarricense. The museum was once an air terminal and control tower for the city’s first airport and is now home to the most extensive collection of Costa Rican art.
Buy Gifts Made in Costa Rica
Touristic destinations are often saturated with generic souvenirs. But artisan-made gifts can be found in San José if you know where to look. Tienda Eñe is a great place to browse locally-designed apparel, shoes, accessories, and home goods. About 98 percent of the products here are made in Costa Rica. Another option is La Estanteria, where you’ll find a selection of packaged snacks, drinks, and souvenirs—all made in Costa Rica. This space also hosts workshops, performances, and events, so you can grab a bottle of local hot sauce and a bag of coffee to take home as gifts, grab a bottle of local kombucha or craft beer to drink on the back patio, then try your hand at traditional mask painting or attend an open mic night. Keep in mind, some events at La Estanteria may be Spanish only, so it may be tricky to understand everything, but it’s a fun place to mingle with locals, so don’t let the language barrier stop you.
Take a Tour of the National Theatre
Constructed in the 1800s in a Neo-Classical style and modeled after the Paris Opera House, this is one of San José’s most iconic and beloved buildings. The interior holds impressive carvings, murals—including the “Allegory of Coffee and Banana,” and history. The theatre is still used today for events and performances, including the National Symphonic Orchestra. The guided tour is playful, and a bit hokey (insider tip: if you speak Spanish, join the Spanish tour instead. The actor-guides are native speakers, so the Spanish tour flows more naturally), but the architecture and stories behind this site are intriguing.
Cheers the Craft Beers
The craft beer scene in San José is growing. Take a brewery tour at Cerveceria Calle Cimarrona, or pair one of their brews with dinner at their restaurant, Apotecario. If you want to make a night of it, book a craft beer crawl and drink your way around San José with a local beer expert.
Eat Comida Tipica
Whether or not you have a chance to eat in a local home, you can still experience a homecooked meal. La Esquinita de JM serves foods you’d find in a traditional Costa Rican home, including olla de carne (beef stew) and arroz de la abuela (grandmother’s rice), and sets the scene with the rustic decor to match. Coffee is served Costa Rican style here: through a chorreador (a wooden coffee contraption with a cloth filter) and into tin cups. Alternatively, join a guided culinary tour offered by Carpe Chepe or Urban Adventures and taste around town with the added insight of a local.
Go On a Coffee Crawl
You may notice coffee berries dangling over the sidewalk when you’re walking around the city, especially in the areas around Barrio Escalanté. These plants in this particular area are no longer harvested but exist as a reminder of the role coffee exports have played in Costa Rica’s development. San José is located in the Central Valley, one of the main coffee-growing regions of the country. Join a guided coffee tour for a chance to visit multiple cafes, dive into the history of this vital crop, learn about various brewing methods, and smell and sip a few samples. If you don’t have time for a full tour, stop by La Mancha, where you can have your coffee prepared in any one of the contraptions displayed behind the counter, including Kyoto-style drip, chorreador, and vandola. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask the owner, Alberto. He has a wealth of knowledge—historical and modern—about coffee and can steer you in the right direction.